Leveraging economic recovery through international higher education.
Internationalization, Economic Impact
Since the Second World War and, above all, since the 1960s, the world has experienced, with the permission of the great economic crises that have also occurred throughout these 60 years, a steady process of internationalization of the economy and society. This process, which on certain occasions has been identified with the underlying trend of Globalization, has radically marked the destinies of the planet’s inhabitants and has given rise, with its lights and shadows, to today’s society. Internationalization has always gone hand in hand with two equally powerful elements: on the one hand, the progressive digitalization of the economy and, on the other, the steady cultural and political openness that has made democracy —the system that most of the planet’s inhabitants currently take for granted, although this was not always the case— the political and social paradigm. These three driving forces have enabled, for example, a middle class to emerge not only in the countries of the first world, but also in many developing nations, providing the optimum breeding ground for human beings to achieve —despite the difficult times we find ourselves in— the highest levels of economic well-being, social progress, individual freedom, economic cohesion and cultural and scientific development that a human society has ever known.
All these outcomes would have been absolutely impossible without the presence of the basic catalyst of this reaction: the internationalization of economic and social exchanges, on the one hand, and on the other, the internationalization of knowledge, teaching, research and outreach at all levels of education, but particularly in higher education. The economic impact of HE internationalization on the Economy is truly remarkable. By way of example, activities directly linked to the internationalization of higher education affected more than 5 million students in OECD countries alone in 2017 and accounted for between 0.2 and 2 percent of the gross domestic product of most of them, with direct employment exceeding, in the case of the United Kingdom and the United States alone, more than 100,000 and 500,000 academic and administrative staff respectively.
Economic disruption in Internationalization during the COVID-19 crisis
For three months now, since its origin in China, the current crisis has gone far beyond the strictly health-related sphere and has ended up affecting practically all elements of our life in society. Universities all over the world have been experiencing disruptions that affect daily teaching and research activities and which have posed a challenge of adaptation at breakneck speed. One of the elements that was previously affected was the internationalization of universities, particularly in its more classic aspect linked to mobility of students or staff —teaching or training. According to various studies, about half of the students who were physically mobile in their corresponding destinations have returned to their place of origin to continue their teaching or research activity by online means in a tidying-up exercise, for them and for the institutions, which is unparalleled in the global history of Higher Education.
Internationalization and Economic Scenarios
This crisis, like other health crises that humanity has lived through, and survived, has an acute phase, in which we are currently immersed. The acute phase will give way to a phase of stabilization and resolution that will last more or less depending on how quickly the world’s health and governmental institutions are able to restore the confidence of individuals in making decisions about their economic, social or educational future. While this definitive resolution is coming, it is up to us, the universities, to accelerate the transformation mechanisms that were already in place, such as digitalization of information and knowledge exchanges, capillarity of internationalization or cross-sectional internationalization, internationalization at home and adaptation of the more collaborative elements within the so-called transnational education. Furthermore, it is up to us to plan for the immediate future through contingency and risk management plans. Higher Education Institutions and their departments of Internationalization will have to play a leading role, reorganizing their internal processes, supporting methods that facilitate security of international flows of students and staff, establishing systems of co-responsibility and multiplying efforts in the areas of inter-institutional cooperation and health-related information processing that will prove useful in prevention and in restoring the confidence of our students and staff.
Contingency and risk management plans will have to vary according to future scenarios and will depend, in turn, on relatively controllable factors —such as the decisions made by our institutions and also the technological development that accompanies the tasks of prevention and anticipation— and on others that are not so controllable —e.g. the speed with which vaccines or, at least, effective treatments are developed. Universities around the world are working tirelessly in this direction, placing planning horizons after the first shock not in the near future but in the medium and long-term. The aim of our work now at universities must be to strengthen the structures that facilitate a post-covid greater and better internationalization; more secure, more comprehensive, more interwoven with all the elements that make up the teaching, learning and research experience —the so-called internationalization ecosystem— and much more prepared for contingency scenarios.
Public Administrations will face, together with the rest of society, times of economic downturn and financial constraints at least in the next few months. This economic turmoil, which is rooted in exogenous, non-structural elements could unlock the temptation by Public Administrations all around the world to consider internationalization as a non-essential, collateral element within the university framework. Acting in such a way would undoubtedly be a serious mistake as it would have negative implications on the effectiveness and the pace with which HEIs, but also societies and families involved, rebuild solid foundations to nurture a sound and stable recovery. Like other major crises of International Confidence in this 21st century —such as the one after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001— this current downturn will force a rethinking of the way in which humanity defines and manages social interaction, international flows of people and educational and leisure activities. This “recodification” of economic internationalization must rapidly move towards rebuilding trust but not towards undermining the path of internationalization that society and universities have travelled so successfully over the last 40 years. It is for this reason that precisely now we must draw attention to the importance of strengthening our strategies for internationalization, making them sounder and more comprehensive and, if possible, more pervasive and meaningful in all areas of the university life. In a way, recovery is already underway and, in all certainty, it will not be able to succeed without internationalization in all its aspects, including physical mobility, regaining a central place.
Let us look at economic history again; not by chance, the two great exogenous crises of confidence experienced by humanity in the last century —the badly named Spanish Flu in 1918/1919— and the one that followed September 11, 2001, gave rise to periods of strong economic expansion, and social, cultural and scientific blooming, once citizens and institutions were able to rebuild damaged structures and regain confidence. Let us hope that this time, too, this will be the case.